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Standing tall: Robert Davidson at the centre of a rebirth in Northwest Coast art

Artist Robert Davidson works on a painting at his studio on the Semiahmoo Reserve in White Rock, B.C.

RAFAL GERSZAK/The Globe and Mail

In 1969, when Robert Davidson was 22, he seized on a life-defining cultural and artistic mission: He would carve and raise a totem pole in his hometown of Masset, B.C. The remote fishing village, perched on the north coast of Haida Gwaii (then the Queen Charlotte Islands), had once been the site of an impressive collection of totem poles and longhouses, the work of its Haida residents, who had lived in the region for centuries. When the young artist carved his giant work, which he called Bear Mother, there had not been a pole-raising ceremony in Masset in nearly a century, and not a single totem pole remained in the village. Davidson, great-grandson of legendary Haida master carver Charles Edenshaw, was not just making a massive work of art. He was making a massive statement about his determination to bring the Haida culture back home.

Looking back, Davidson recalls how, when they were moving the 12-metre totem pole to a site next to a church, his grandfather poked him in the back with his cane. "Hey Robert," he said, "that pole doesn't belong to you any more; it belongs to them" – to the Haida community. Explains Davidson, "None of the people in Masset had witnessed a pole raising, so that was an amazing moment. And the minute the pole stood up, the people started to dance and sing." Davidson, as is the tradition, danced around the pole himself, carrying the tools he used to carve it.

Now, the artist is at the centre of another big moment in Haida culture – this time far from the lush remoteness of Masset.

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At the Seattle Art Museum, a wide-ranging exhibition titled Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse – which will later travel to a Smithsonian museum in New York – focuses on Davidson's contemporary work, mostly paintings, and marks the first major American solo show for the artist. And just up the coast from there, Davidson has acted as one of the Haida advisers on the first retrospective of Edenshaw's career, featuring some 240 works, at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Together, the two shows mark an important, and long overdue, moment in the renaissance of Northwest Coast native culture. "There is," says Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American Art at SAM and the co-curator of the Davidson show, "this blossoming awareness of Haida art."

In a strong statement by SAM, Davidson's large acrylic canvases, bold in colour and execution, have taken up residence in the prime real estate of the Modern and Contemporary Galleries at the heart of the 81-year-old institution in downtown Seattle, rather than in the Native and Ancient Americas Galleries down the hall. "I'm tickled pink about that," said Davidson during an interview from his studio in White Rock, south of Vancouver. "I feel so often we're put into the category of aboriginal art, but I feel the classical art form can stand side by side with all of the other art forms in the world."

From the moment you walk off the escalator, it's hard not to be wowed. The first work visitors encounter is the striking Bird in the Air, from 2012, which has the refinements of classical Haida art but uses primary colours – including marigold yellow and ultramarine. As such, it boldly diverges from the red, black and white palette of Haida graphic art (though Davidson notes that yellow features prominently in the eye sockets on a Haida totem pole at the entrance to the Field Museum in Chicago and that both yellow and blue are used in Haida blankets). Davidson had seen a depiction of this supernatural avian being on an Edenshaw totem pole, and brings a contemporary interpretation with this abstraction.

In the undeniably contemporary Canoe Breaker: Southeast Wind's Brother, from 2010, Davidson also riffs on classic Haida form and story in one of his personal favourites from the Seattle show (a work that also graces the front of the exhibit catalogue, and which SAM has recently acquired). In that acrylic, you can easily identify the head of a killer whale, as well as what could be a dorsal fin, and traditional ovoid and U shapes. "I feel it embodies a lot of what I learned about the art," says Davidson, who innovates in paintings such as these by expanding on his deep understanding of the art form, developed over many decades of formal and on-the-ground study.

"His work has aspects of Haida art, but it really is his own," says Brotherton. "What he says is, 'I'm not making new Haida art. What I'm doing is exploring my ongoing understanding of what Haida art is.'"

Brotherton first met Davidson in 1977 when she travelled to Masset, on the northern coast of the largest of the islands that make up Haida Gwaii, to camp and hike. It was supposed to be a simple break from her University of California studies of 19th-century European painting; it would end up a life-changing adventure. Brotherton eventually completed a PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle, with an emphasis on Northwest Coast native art.

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In 2008, she curated the SAM show S'abadeb – The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists, which later travelled to the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. "In working on that exhibition, I realized how formidable the [Canada-U.S.] border is, in terms of just ideas and information flowing back and forth," she said, as she toured through the Davidson exhibit. "One of my reasons to propose this was to give Robert great exposure down here."

He's certainly getting it. After Seattle, the show will travel to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York (whose director, John Haworth, co-curated the exhibit). In the catalogue, Haworth writes that the two museums have sought to honour Davidson's position within the Haida world, but also to place his work in a broader global context: "His work … deserves far greater recognition and appreciation on the world stage."

Davidson, who is a dual Canadian-U.S. citizen, was born in Hydaburg, Alaska, but moved with his family when he was a baby to Masset, where he was raised. There, evidence of the rich Haida culture had all but vanished – the result of government-sanctioned cultural oppression; wrong-headed missionaries; intense interest by international museums that bought up artifacts collected by anthropologists; and the decimation of the Haida population itself, due to smallpox, in particular the devastating epidemic of 1862. Davidson learned about his disappeared culture largely from his elders, including stories told to him by his grandmother, Edenshaw's daughter.

At 13, with chunks of yellow cedar that his father – a carpenter and boat-builder – brought home from work, Davidson learned to carve. He also learned to work with argillite, guided by both his father and grandfather. But it wasn't until he moved to Vancouver to finish high school (which he couldn't do in Masset; there weren't enough students) that he experienced significant exposure to the cultural riches of his people back home. He recalls being "absolutely blown away" by the fine carvings he saw in Vancouver museums – including firsthand exposure to art made by his great-grandfather. "In Masset and Skidegate [also on Haida Gwaii], there was absolutely nothing left of that high standard," he says. At the same time, he was disappointed that, in Vancouver, Haida works fell into the category of "curios" rather than serious art.

It was in Vancouver that Davidson, while demonstrating his carving work at the Eaton's department store, met famed Haida artist Bill Reid, who had been strongly influenced by Edenshaw's work. Reid coached Davidson in sculpture and design, and gave him work in his studio. Davidson also enrolled in the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr University of Art + Design). As well, he repeatedly visited the replica Haida Village at the University of British Columbia, by Reid and Doug Cranmer, which Davidson says helped further his study and maintain his inspiration.

Over time, Davidson became determined to carve and raise a totem pole for his community – with encouragement from his elders, and assistance from his younger brother, Reg. The 1969 pole-raising was a major moment for the community – and for Davidson, helping him understand that he could not separate the visual art of his people from their cultural ceremonies. In 1980, he co-founded the Rainbow Creek Dancers, a Haida dance group, and worked to bring a potlatch – a culturally integral ceremony, once outlawed – back to his people. For his 1981 potlatch, he made 21 painted drums for the village – which marked the beginning of his transition to painting. There are several drums in the Seattle show, which demonstrate how Davidson experimented and innovated with the circular surface as his canvas.

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Over time, Davidson's work took a more contemporary route: increasingly abstracted paintings; elegant, sculpted panels made of cedar; expertly carved bracelets that transcend the decorative. But he has never distanced his work from his cultural traditions.

Says Brotherton, "It's very difficult for First Nations artists to find that sweet spot where the community approves of their work and museums are interested in it and collectors want to buy it." Adds the curator, whose own grandfather was of Shawnee heritage, "You're either not traditional enough or not contemporary enough. What's so great about Robert is that his art is idiosyncratic. It doesn't play to either of those polarities. For him, Haida art can be both traditional and contemporary at the same time."

The Seattle exhibition is a showcase for his vision and his skills – the crisp lines, the precision, the sheer beauty. Some of the paintings, such as the dynamic, cross-hatch-heavy Tri-Neg (2009), have a kind of three-dimensionality that makes them feel almost like carvings on canvas. At the same time, his sculptural work – for example, the 2012 relief panel Gwaiiyaa, The Islands – can take on the feel of a painting.

While the show pops with colour, a powerful exception is We Were Once Silenced, 2000, a contemporary version of a totem pole. This extraordinary red cedar work is a testament in monochrome to the dark period encompassing Davidson's parents' generation, when the Haida were robbed of their culture – banned from speaking their language and practising traditions such as the potlatch, with children forced into residential schools. The work's central figure is a mirror image, comprising two faces (one male, one female) pained by a silent scream, their open mouths smothered by the tongue of two larger faces at the top and bottom of the pole.

"Being silenced held us in recession. It was almost like we were imprisoned. We couldn't express ourselves through our ceremony, through the knowledge that was handed down for generations," says Davidson. "Now it's our time to tell our stories and also to reclaim our place in society. We can no longer be silenced."

Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse is at the Seattle Art Museum until Feb. 16 and at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York from April 12 to Sept. 14. Charles Edenshaw is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Feb. 2.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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